A USER'S GUIDE TO PUBLISHED BOOKS ABOUT SYMBOLIST ART
'Dreamers of Decadence', (Symbolist Painters of the 1890s). Author: Phillippe Jullian
An evocative, mood laiden and sometimes poetic tour through the years of the 'fin de siècle'. As well as the learned content, the writing and presentation aptly convey an experience of the rich, dark, other-worldliness of the 'decadent' symbolist imagination.
Praeger Publishers 1971. Translated from the original French.
'Passionate Discontent', (Creativity, Gender, and French Symbolist Art). Author: Patricia Mathews
The University of Chicago Press. 1999
'Symbolism'. Author: Michael Gibson
A popular large size publication which is an excellent introduction to Symbolism, as well as being an asset to the collection of the established enthusiast. Richly illustrated and clearly written.
Taschen, Big Series Art. 1997, 1999, 2006
'Symbolist Art'. Author: Edward Lucie-Smith
Written with a balance of thorough art-historical detail and interesting, clear descriptions of the subject matter. This relatively small volume is packed with information and with imagery that includes plenty of coloured reproductions. The development of Symbolism in art is traced from its Romantic precursor, through the Pre-Raphaelites, into the fin de siècle, and on to the early Picasso.
Thames and Hudson. 1972, reprinted 1997. From the 'World of Art' series.
'Symbolist Art Theories' (A Critical Anthology). Author: Henri Dorra
An anthology of texts - articles, reviews, personal correspondence, taken from painters and sculptors, poets and critics, architects and designers, which run in tandem with the author's learned commentaries. This is a book for the serious student of art history, and for the general reader who already has an interest in the Symbolist movement and who wishes to pursue that in a fuller and more expansive art historical context. With a prologue of 'Baudelaire, Delacroix, and the Premises of Symbolist Aesthetics', the book journeys through 'Romantic Symbolists', 'Decorative Arts and Architecture', 'Literary Symbolism', 'The Post Impressionists', 'The Artists of the Soul', and to the Epilogue 'Formalist Criticism and the Harbingers of Surrealism'.
University of California Press. 1994
'Symbolists and Symbolism'. Author: Robert L. Delevoy
An excellent and extremely erudite account of the subject. As with 'Dreamers of Decadence', the heady mood is often evoked, and much symbolist poetry is interspersed amongst a mass of images, many of which are in colour. This is a learned and often dense work. One for the seriously interested and not for the faint hearted! Nevertheless great care has been taken to navigate the reader. There is an extremely useful index/dictionary that provides condensed biographies of many of the artists. There is also much qualifying detail given in the list of illustrations. A large size book.
Macmillan London. 1982. Translated from the French.
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SAVING THE LIVES OF ANGELS
The writer and artist SASHA CHAITOW'S exhibition and commentary on the work of the renowned Symbolist JOSÉPHIN PÉLADAN. A Review.
Joséphin Péladan was central to the late Symbolist and 'Decadent' period of art in France and beyond. He was a dominant figure of the fin de siècle through his prodigious output of writing, his passionate beliefs - which insisted on the transformational beauty that should be inherent in art - his charisma and force of character, and his sheer eccentricity. He motivated and offered patronage to the artists whom he favoured and who qualified to be within his exclusive group. Exclusive in that his criteria was exact and exacting. Hence for the famous, massively attended, salon exhibition of la Rose+Croix in 1892, there was the following dictate to the artists:
'The Order forbids any contemporary representations, rustic, military, flowers, animals, genres such as history, and portraits or landscapes. But it welcomes all allegories, legends, mysticism and myth, as well as expressive faces if they are noble, or nude studies if they are beautiful. Because you must make BEAUTY to enter the Rose+Croix Salon.'
Such criteria, though rigorous and specific to Péladan, give a good idea of the general aims of the Symbolist Art movement, though beauty, as a requirement, is not always so evident. Péladan presided over the Rose+Croix as the Mage, Sär Merodack, a title substantiated by his claim to a lineage of Babylonian royalty. Dressed in priest-like robes and with a mass of black hair and long beard, it has become easy to assume him to be just a peculiar man with equally peculiar ideas - therefore, not to be taken seriously. It is in this way that time has strangely and unfairly discounted a man of remarkable ability, profound thought, exceptional idealism, and a marked ability to enable those within his circle. For the English-speaking world, there is the added factor that nothing from his enormous output - novels, reviews, articles - has been translated.
We should therefore be considerably thankful for the tireless and scholarly work of Dr Sasha Chaitow. Her doctoral research was on the life and work of Péladan, and in her lectures and articles she has shone light upon that, which to most admirers of Symbolist Art, would have remained impossibly obscure. Not only is Sasha Chaitow a respected academic in the field of esotericism, she is as well, a practising artist and gallerist.
Her exhibition of 2016 entitled 'Saving the Lives of Angels', has offered an enlightening study, through her oil paintings and accompanying commentaries, into the Platonically influenced but highly individual esoteric philosophy of Péladan. Though she gives a disclaimer, stating that his views are not necessarily hers, she clearly has expressed them with sympathy as well as understanding.
If you can get hold of a copy of the exhibition catalogue - do so, as it gives such a clear description of Péladan's views, aided and enhanced by her own artistic interpretations, painted in 'neo-symbolist' style.
If not, there is her website: www.sashachaitow.co.uk , which also offers access to her written commentaries, and her paintings, drawings and prints.
This review by William Rose
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THE MAGICAL BATTLE BETWEEN THE ROSE-CROIX KABBALASTIQUE AND THE ABBE JOSEPH-ANTOINE BOULLAN.
Felicien Rops 'Le Vice Supreme' 1883
An examination of the main protagonists and how the events, documented in the press at the time, shed light on the occult ambience in which ‘fin-de-siecle Symbolist artists carried out their practice.
(Sean Jefferson is a contemporary symbolist artist with a substantial art historical knowledge of the Symbolist movement and the artists whose lives and work helped to shape that movement. His own pictorial work can be viewed on our website by clicking here: Sean Jefferson Art )
A defining characteristic of symbolist art is that it is an attempt to systematically transcend the mundane world and take its audience into realms not perceptible to the normal senses.
This art was an expression of the magical revival which paralleled the scientific revolution. The revelation of the power of steam, hydraulics and electricity, microscopy and ever better telescopes promised ever more sophisticated insights and subsequent human power. It was not illogical to look back to ancient, or supposed ancient, sources, long suppressed by the church, to find knowledge and gain power without recourse to or understanding of the scientific method. Science was and still can be seen as a component of alchemical practice.1
Other factors were also important. The philosophy of Nietzsche and the elevation of the human ‘will’, seen as a tangible force, combined with the publication of the visions and dreams of Swedenborg. The French magician Eliphas Levi had described the human ‘will’ ‘as a stream or galvanic current’2 using the pseudo-scientific jargon of Franz Anton Mesmer. Levi’s publications in the latter half of the nineteenth century were central to popular interest in High Magic.
The visual artists seem to have taken their inspiration from the writers and poets who were, in turn, taking their inspiration directly from occult practices, often spiced up with drugs. At this period artists formed into groups and these had connections with various occult societies.
The first artist to be defined as a symbolist was Fernand Khnopff in 1886.3
Fernand Khnopff 'The Sleeping Medusa' 1886
The following year The Kabbalah Unveiled, was published (and has remained in print ever since).4 The ancient Jewish system of kabbalah provides the hidden mysticism behind the Old Testament and had become by the late 19th century the bedrock of the magical revival, its symbolism, and cosmic numerology fitting neatly with Masonic rituals based on the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.6 Solomon was famous for his magical powers as well as his wisdom. Most of the documented magical societies were run on Masonic lines with initiation rituals grades etc.
Several magical texts, or grimoires, are claimed to reveal Solomon’s methods. These involve the production of consecrated magical weapons and symbolic robes, the use of the protective magical circle and the triangle of art (to restrain the demon), the production of talismans and all the other paraphernalia of medieval magic.
In 1888 the Rose-Croix Kabbalistique, was set up in Paris, although its founders would, as is common with secret societies, claim they were reviving an ancient order. As with the Golden Dawn in London its founders were Freemasons and as with their London Counterparts they believed they possessed the secrets of the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians were an ultra secretive magical society from the early 17th century, which quite possibly never existed. Pamphlets were published in their name in Germany, which caused a massive stir and which fuelled conspiracy theories which even today show no signs of fading away.7
Unlike the Golden Dawn the Rose-Croix Kabbalistique had an artistic manifesto and held five annual salons. At the first and most important Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Felicien Rops and Khnopff all exhibited. Founder member and Grand Master of the order, Josephin Peladan described Rops, de Chavannes and Moreau as the Kabbalistic triangle of great art. Significantly Moreau was one of three contemporary artist who appear in the book A Rebours (Against Nature) the most important Symbolist novel, written by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1884.
A Rebours was the defining symbolist work of prose charting the life of an ultra rich aristocrat the last of his line, in his attempt to live completely isolated from contemporary society, controlling completely his sensory world, indulging in the most refined taste, often against what might be considered natural or virtuous. It was based on the notorious dandy and aesthete Robert de Montesquiou. (The book gained further notoriety in the trial of Oscar Wilde, described by the judge as a sodomitical book)
Huysmans’ second most influential book was La Bas (1891) .This dealt directly with occult themes. The hero is again sickened by modern society and in this case is a thinly disguised version of the author himself. He immerses himself in medieval studies and becomes fascinated by the idea of the Black Mass. A parody of the Christian rite where the host, the actual body of Christ, in the catholic tradition, is sickeningly abused.
There are two reasons the black mass is performed. One to gain favour with Satan, who seemingly to the practitioners, and with some evidence, is the ruler of the earth. Two, and more commonly, to experience liberation from any belief in a higher judgemental being. Interestingly there are some striking similarities between the Black Mass and certain Gnostic rights from around just before the birth of Christ. Gnostic belief has similarities to Kabbalah and contains the belief that a divine spark exists in all humans. Some sects practice degrading rights involving semen and menstrual blood, excreta, possibly child sacrifice and certainly orgiastic sex in order to celebrate or assert that the divine spark can never be contaminated by matter even though it is imprisoned temporarily within it. Other groups practiced extreme asceticism for the same ends. Both practices will lead to a derangement of the senses, with resultant visions, intense unnatural agonies and ecstasies, and ultimately revealing what lies behind the veil of ordinary limited perception.
In order to correctly perform the Black Mass the host has to be properly consecrated, by a Catholic Priest. In the book the hero traces down a Priest who practices the rite. In real life Huysmans became acquainted with the Abbe Boullan.
It now seems Boullan was an extremely sick but obviously charismatic individual. A Catholic Priest, he had come to believe that salvation was only possible through sexual intercourse with saints or angels. These may have been manifest in human form; sex in some form, anyway formed an important part of his ministry, particularly with a community of nuns with which he was involved. Unsurprisingly he was to be accused of invoking incubi and succubi, presumably ‘under the guise’ of angels or saints. It was rumoured that he had ritually sacrificed one of his children. After being defrocked he had gained control of a sect of Vitrasians. These were followers of the recently deceased PiereVintras , another unorthodox Catholic Priest, famous for his production of bleeding Hosts at the altar and receiving apocalyptic visions.
It is hard to believe Huysmans knew the full extent of Boullan’s activities; they may have been exaggerated, yet La Bas ends with a minutely described Black Mass, presumably attended in real life by Huysmans himself. Philip Ward Jackson, in his essay Felicien Rops and the Literary Background, points out that Huysmans was closely associated with Emile Zola and was considered a naturalist author before a total redirection took him into Symbolism and the Occult.8 Peladan hated naturalism, celebrating the mundane banal realities of ordinary peoples ordinary lives, describing Zola as the inventor of 'the black arts of medan'. Instead of welcoming him into the fold Huysmans was convinced that Peladan was carrying out a sustained magical assault on him . This was the probable start of the whole magical battle as Huysmans enlisted the help of Boullan, understandable if he thought his life was at risk.
The Rose – Croix Kabbalistique had been set up by Peladin on the death of his brother Adrien, who had been initiated into a ‘Rosicrucian’ Masonic Lodge. Tradition and continuity are vital to magical societies. It is likely it was through his brother that Pelladin had the required level of initiation and probably a legitimate charter to form his new group. Co-founders of the group were the Marquis Stanislas de Guatia, a poet, freemason, occultist and serious drug user, and Gerard Encausse, pen name Papus.
Encausse had written popular books on the occult and was instrumental in bringing the Tarot cards into the kabbalistic system. The claim was that the link had always existed but had been kept secret. It was claimed that the 22 major arcana corresponded to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is a strange choice of number if there is no link. The 22 letters are associated with the paths on the tree of life diagram which has become central to Western gentile kabbalism. See9).
Encausse is less known for his time at the Russian Imperial court. In 1905 he was brought in to raise the spirit of Czar Alexander 3rd. He warned against the influence of Rasputin and accurately predicted the death of Czar Nicholas.
De Guatia and his secretary Oswald Wirth had on separate occasions visited Boullan and had been shocked by what they had found. De-Guatia stole a manuscript of one of Boullan’s rituals , presumably as proof of what was going on and most likely to make a magical link in order to carry out occult attacks. This goes back to folk magic, but often then a hair or nail clipping of the victim was the link of choice. Boullan soon suffered a number of heart attacks which he put down to the Parisian magicians’ attacks on him.
In 1891 Huysmans was with Boullan researching for La-Bas and found him retaliating against de Guatia and Pelladin with attacks of his own. Huysmans went to the French press describing his friend Boullan, tormented by Devils, cursing Peladin and de Guatia, at his altar ,calling on intervention from St.Michael and the ‘Eternal Judiciaries’. During his stay a letter arrived condemning Boullan to ‘death by the fluids’, a term redolent of the demonstrations of Mesmer a century earlier in Paris, although Mesmer’s magnetic fluid was used for healing purposes in large public performances. Despite his efforts, Boullan succumbed to the attacks and died of a further heart attack. Huysmans himself became convinced he was under attack.
Huysmans publicly accused de Guatia of Boullan’s murder and as a result was challenged by de Guatia to a duel. Huysmans quickly withdrew his accusations and published an apology. This could have ended the affair had not Jules Bois renewed the accusations against the Rosicrucians.
Joules Bois was not only a friend of Huysmans but also S.L.M Mathers, one of the founders of the Golden Dawn. Bois was himself a member of the Golden Dawn and like Mathers was active in women’s emancipation. The Golden Dawn had broken with Masonic tradition and accepted women on equal terms with men, a good move for Mathers who relied on Annie Horniman for his sole source of income between 1891 and 1896. Mathers has retained a whiter than white reputation regards his magical practice, apart from some inevitable comments by Aleister Crowley, and it must be assumed that at this time Bois would have held the same beliefs as Mathers. It is strange then that Bois sided himself with a notorious black magician. It may also be significant that at this time Mathers and his wife Mina were moving their operations to Paris , and this coinciding with his setting up an even more secret second order within the Golden Dawn, for its highest initiates, where ceremonial magic was practiced. This was The Order of the Rose of Ruby and The Cross of Gold , a new Rosicrucian order right under the noses of Peladan and de Guaita.
Another loose end in the affair is the claim (made by a current member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, another Rosicrucian inspired group) that de Guaita’s anger at Huysmans and Bois was that La Bas was a thinly disguised expose of the practices of the Rose - Croix Kabbalistique and not Boullan. Later Louis Van Haeke , chaplain of the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruge was to be considered a source for the book.
Bois, rather unfairly,fought duels both with de Guaita and Encause ,inevitably magic played its part in the proceedings. The journey to his encounter with de Guaita was interrupted when the horses pulling his carriage became inexplicably terrified and refused to proceed . On eventually arriving and fighting the duel the bullet failed to leave his gun , the Marquis then missed with his shot, probably in accordance with etiquette. The journey to the second dual was again beset with problems with the carriage . The duel, this time with sabres , took place with each man receiving slight injuries and honour satisfied. Later the two men became friends.
This put an end to the affair, but it should be noted that the 1st Salon de la Rose Croix took place during the period and the exhibiting artists and no doubt other leading symbolists would have followed the story in Le Figaro and Gil Blas. It is hard to imagine what they made of it all although it is likely to have influenced who subsequently exhibited with Peladan or got involved with groups practicing magical initiation.
The cataclysmic events of 1914-1918 largely finished off mainstream interest in the mysticism and the occult which inspired Symbolist Art, apart from a more populist
interest in spiritualism. De Guaita died young and blind as a consequence of drug abuse, a typical end for a poete maudit at the time and still a popular ‘life style’ choice for modern creatives. Huysmans embodied the other clichéd end for a decadent artist and became a devout Roman Catholic. Oddly in the light of all the above, in March 2010, a Masonic Lodge was consecrated in Rome dedicated to Stanislas de Guaita.
Aubrey Beardsley 'Of a Neophite and How the Black Art was Revealed to Him by the Fiend Asomuel' 1893 (private collection).
(1) Isaac Newton , The Last Sorcerer by Michael White Fourth Estate
(2) Transcendental Magic,Its Doctrine and Ritual by Eliphas Levi Rider 1962
(3) Silouettes D’Artists by EmileVerhearen (1886) From essay on Fernand Knopff
by Frederick Leen in Fernand Knopff ISBN90-76704-45-7
(4) Kabbalah Unveiled by Mathers S.L.M. Routledge 1970 reprint
(5) The Cannon by William Sterling R.I.L.K.O
(6) The Key Of Solomon trans. Mathers S.L.M. Routledge 1972 reprint
(7) The Rosicrucian Enlightenment by Yates F.A. Routledge
(8) Felicien Rops. Arts Council Cat. ISBN 7287 01162.
To view the author's own art work on our website click here: Sean Jefferson Art
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'PAINTER OF REALITY' - A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION OF CECIL COLLINS (1976)
In his representation of another order of reality, it has been said that Cecil Collins is in the best tradition of Blake. All art leads to an expansion of consciousness but in such artists as Blake and Collins, this is often achieved in the form of beings at once familiar and strange. Sometimes he portrays human beings but primarily Collins chooses to paint beings who are demonstrably more than human. They are usually female with human faces but of superhuman power or humility, whose eyes are, for me, the most compelling indication I have seen in pictorial art that there are indeed extraterrestrial levels of life.
His small Head (6 X 4 inches) of 1970 I would rather own than the Mona Lisa. In this composition of brown tones the female figure, her eyes blazing with authority, is an angel - a being neither here nor there, a mediator between us on earth and what may be an infinite number of other levels of consciousness. This angel (with the Fool the main figure in his work) is in a doorway, as such figures often are in his pictures, beckoning us to pass through and willing to come to us if we will give her sufficient time and attention, although, as Richard Morphet points out, at times one is arrested suddenly by some inner quality calling forth when one is not expecting a particular picture to do so.
As much as with any painterof the twentieth century, the works of Cecil Collins must be seen to be fully appreciated with the inner eye. Fools, angels, 'inner' jewels (such as Aldous Huxley reported seeing under LSD), lunar landscapes, grass and plants vibrating, so it seems, with life's essential energy - they are all 'within' us.
The Head that I thought better than the Mona Lisa I liked at first sight. and so much has it grown on me as I continue to look at it that I feel I painted it myself. 'It just shows', said Collins, 'to what an extent you've identified with the picture'. Another small oil, Anima, only slowly became part of me. The extreme tenderness and humility of the angel figure calling to me to find and nourish these qualities in myself before the picture would be mine. But once I had become to do this, to develop those qualities, it started to happen. So it is that Collins' works seldom appear for auction. For once the link is established, between owner and work, it would seem a species of soul murder to dispatch them to the auction house.
And no matter how involved is a picture, it is astonishing, to the patient viewer, to find that there is always an image at the heart of the composition, to know that if he trusts in the vision and skill of Collins an image will emerge and swim up out of the depths. It is a rare moment when it does. My first impression of an extraordinary angel in pen and blue ink was of a mess; a head of sorts I could distinguish and the heart shape of the body, but apart from that it was for me a mass of cross-hatching and lines drawn at random. Suddenly, after twenty or thirty minutes, the form emerged from the 'extraneous matter' while remaining at one with it; revealing itself as a work of wonderful richness. Simlarly, a head in gouache turned, to my great surprise, into that of a concerned, wise young woman.
It seemed to me that the images were plucked 'out of the air' and laid on the canvas in one fell swoop. 'Yes', said Collins, 'it's a real world', he didn't make it up. He could sit down at his table and enter it at almost any time. Almost at any time, for as Sir John Rothenstein reports in his essay on Collins in Modern British Painters, in 1959, he lost touch with his inner world and did no painting for a year.
It is Collins' opinion that the business of the artist is to raise the consciousness of the world. Some worship God with form, some God without form: he tries to infuse his formed paintings with the formlessness of the other world. He does not believe, as do so many, that either world should be emphasised at the expense of the other. He is not concerned with proclaiming a message but in showing forth a vision. He sees his pictures as votive offerings which he hopes will make people happy. It is not a message, rather the experience of things that are there. He wants people to have an experience, after which they might find other similar experiences within themselves.
Despite this wish there is, at his best, nothing in his mind as he paints. The pictures cast from him as objective works. Unlike such people as Francis Bacon, a therapeutic painter whose work is filled with the pus he squeezes from his own boils, Collins tries to keep the egoistic part of himself out of the paintings. Yet, denied the pleasure and sense of relief a Bacon may have in his easement of pain, the attempt is for him agonizing and frustrating. Empty as he is in the act of creation, the fullness any artist feels at this time is something he experiences only at the completion of the work.
People have been kind enough to tell him that his paintings reveal to them 'the other side', which he speaks of as naturally as do most people of a nearby neighbourhood. Yet to him the wafting of the image onto his favoured hard board is something that he knows nothing about, an event that happens in spite of himself. Things happen. Paint is applied, images are conveyed to the surface and when he has finished, Collins wonders how they got there. So detached can he feel from his creations that at his big retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1959, he came to the door, as one who is a newcomer to the work of Cecil Collins, bought a catalogue and stood before No. 1., a nine-foot high monster. 'I wonder who painted that?', he mused, before proceeding to No. 2. He quite enjoyed the show.
His works are his children but where they are from and how created is a mystery. Words that he uses often to describe his pictures are 'absolutely un-analysable' and 'hypnotic', which they seem to many people to be. A 1958 watercolour study Studies of Seated Women, for instance, meaningless for a time until the meaning suddenly came to me, (or I had grown into the meaning), it has become an even more fruitful experience, a picture which fascinates me in the word's sense of irresistable enchantment. Three women are seated side by side, though clearly not together, representing as they do, different aspects of consciousness. The figure on the right is an old woman composed of a mass of apparently chaotic black lines and splashes of paint, some form of original energy before it was worked on and given clearer definition. In the centre is a young woman with no facial features, a contemplative figure of the utmost serenity, one of those beings of Collins' almost overwhelming in their gentleness. Finally, looking towards us from a doorway on the left, is a woman akin to the angel of 'Head', an hieratic figure in which we see a fusion of the energy and poise of the other two women, a woman, the light in whose eyes flashes out towards us with tremendous, irresistable power.
Apart from the pleasure I have in looking at the picture (and in being looked at?) I feel that I receive from it a communication, though what that might be is, as Collins says, beyond definition. In 'Woman' a small oil of 1962 ( a time of introspection and 'intimate thoughts' in paint), a white-robed young woman with downcast head and eyes stands in a doorway, in an attitude of the most tender solicitude, and with profound humility. A messenger from another world? A mediator standing at the meeting point between other realms of life and our earth? Someone setting us an example of true self-abnegation? These and other thoughts arise from contemplation of the picture. Finally one sees that the meaning of the picture is not to be expressed in verbal terms, but in what can only be described as meditation. Culled from afar, the woman seems truly to have a life of her own and to be, ultimately, like all human beings, trees, fish, and the rest of creation, beyond understanding.
That a Collins picture changes the atmosphere of a room is undeniable, though how it does so I do not know. Let he who claims to explain it beware! Collins thinks that such people as Jungians err in interpreting his works, no matter in how sophisticated a way they do it.
For how could they 'explain' his angels (those meek or terrible figures that, as well as anything in art today, convince me of levels of life beyond the intellect) in terms of anima, Great Earth Mothers or that marvellous and convenient rag - bag, the collective unconscious? It is clear, remember, that to most Jungians, as well as to those of a less extravagant cast of mind, angels are not real but are a metaphor, to express another order which may not really exist either.
Cecil Collins has seen Angels. In his work, they do not just stand for something. In the midst of the daily round and at almost any time he chooses, he can change the level of intensity of his experience and enter the region where angels and other forms and creatures dwell. In their mediation between an unknown world and earth, angels perform a vital role. Ignorant and imperfect as we are, we could not bear the direct reality of that unknown world.
Angels have human faces. They would be of no use in relating to human beings if they did not have. In Collins' work they are female rather than male. He is, in this emphasis, in harmony with an increasing number of thinkers and creative artists who, over the past twenty years, perceive that the feminine in life has been and is undervalued and are attempting to redress the balance.
Much involved with 'vibration' and 'intensity', Collins takes great pains to ensure that his paintings can be appreciated from any distance. This is unlike, for instance, England's greatest impressionist, Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, whose watercolours are revealed in their full beauty only at a certain distance, usually six to eight feet. In a small oil, Collins has painted a white-robed angel kneeling beside a pool in a barren plain, overshadowed by purple mountains and a looming orange sky. The angel scarcely visible from 10 feet one is impressed by the strange austerity of the terrain, while at two feet the seemingly fragile figure is felt in all its power and dominates the picture. So it continues, even if one proceeds to a degree not normally taken; a slide was made of the picture, the angel enlarged, and this new image projected to cover a wall. Such was the clarity and detail, it was almost impossible to believe that it had all been contained in the original.
Whether they are 'intimate thoughts', as in the Angel by the Pool or works of full assertion like Studies of Seated Women, one senses in all Collins' pictures great energy. There are no histrionics, no tricks, nothing but the real thing: a conviction of image which flows from his almost unbroken contact with the Source of all form. In a day when the word has been used too often, 'life-enhancing' is a true word for the work of Collins. As well as the indefinable change of atmosphere his paintings can effect, they also, paradoxically for works not conceived in a moralistic or didactic vein, make you feel better.
It might seem, from the way in which one speaks of the connection between the 'other side' and the power of Collins' paintings, that any mystic could do as much after a few lessons with the brush. This is of course not so. Time and again Collins stresses that. as an artist, the finding of the image is of no import without a highly-developed technique with which to set it down. No mean painter by his fortieth year, he nevertheless devoted the whole of 1948 to the study of technique, starting with the Romans and gesso and working his way through art history. We see, for instance, that the calligraphic style of the grey, monochromatic Studies of Seated Women owes much to the East. In The Mage he achieves an extraordinarily rich effect by applying a solution of inexpensive gold paint which he then 'traps' under several layers of other paint and glaze.
As well as the glazing process, in which layer upon layer is applied slowly and with great care to the finished picture and where we see Collins in what might be called his symphonic aspect, there is the chamber music of his drawings in pencil. In June, 1976, at the d'Offay gallery, he had an exhibition composed solely of pencil drawings, a rare event these days. Angels there were, of course. Fools (simple, innocent men looking out without guile at the world - not foolish men), a mysterious young girl before a table shape that with the impress of Collins can be nothing but an altar, re-workings of a huge oil of his wife and himself painted in the 1930s and two female heads transferred to the paper with such delicacy that it seems that they have been created in smoke and could at any moment drift away.
He prefers different mediums at different times - oils, watercolour, pencil or pen and ink. In the last of these, in his employment of beautiful blue ink or that evocative umber of Rembrandt, he is, unchallengeably, a master.
So, too, does he work on varied surfaces: from the thick paper of those recent pencil drawings, to canvas and his favourite surface, hardboard. Its nature yielding and feminine, canvas is not as suitable for him as the 'masculine' wood which fights his brush and provides the ideal complement to his predominantly feminine sensibility.
But whether board, canvas, paper, the etching plate or the stone for the lithograph, Collins approaches the surface on which he is to work in the same spirit as the icon painter blessing his wood. As in all aspects of the work of Collins, one is reminded that for him, art is a sacramental activity.
A mystic, a 'visionary' as a critic described him recently, Collins seems at 68 a man who would be equally at home in a cloister or a nineties cafe, a man who, while aware of the crudest details of everyday life, yet has his real home elsewhere.
For years it has been the connoisseur who has appreciated him. His work is in the collections of, amongst others, Lord Clark, Lord Britten, Peter Pears and Stephen Spender. Today, with the time catching up with him, his work is being recognized by more and more people. The surging interest in mysticism and the occult, the desire of the young for direct experience instead of dogma, the search for inner authority - it is the knowledge that Cecil Collins has been on this 'wave length' for fifty years that endears him today to the young.
For the thirty years in which Roger Fry and Clive Bell ruled the critical roost he was ignored. Later, because of his inner experience and for faithfully attending to his work for so long, the young were enthusiastic and numerous at his London College of Art classes and at his lectures at the Tate Gallery and City Literary Institute. Stalwart, too, were they in his defence in his significant 1975 battle with benighted bureaucrats, his victory which enabled him to continue teaching after the stipulated age of retirement.
Collins feels that few critics appreciated his paintings. Having slowly grown into his world over two years, I can see that it might have been so.When an artist's pictures require so much time for their just appraisal, it would be an exceptional critic who, amidst the hundreds of images of a dozen exhibitions a week, could make connection with one of Collins' truly inspired works. So it is that he lays much emphasis on learning to read an artist's work (and by no means only his own) and that he holds regular classes in this art of reading. There is too much ideology in art, he thinks, too much exaltation of message over technique. Time and again one is reminded of Collins' mastery of technique, of his having painstakingly equipped himself to show forth his visions.
With no 'periods' or good and bad times, Collins paints on, slowly, now putting down the fruits of contemplation, now surging forth in pictures of great energy. His pictures are to be enjoyed. We may, if we choose, read into his female figures our own disregarded feminine aspect, we may put on a Jungian hat and connect this image to that myth. But, finally, such analysis counts for very little, if for anything, in an approach to Collins' work. Let us be content that each of his pictures touches us in a different way, until we feel that if he went on painting forever, we would have eventually a map of the entire human psyche, of which each picture is a part.
It is Collins' view point that is so unusual; when we look at most pictures we believe we can imagine ourselves into the artist's mind and wonder why we had not seen the subject in that particular way, without his assistance. With Collins, however, it is not like looking at a picture screen from a seat in the stalls, but as though we have turned around in our seats to look towards the projector (our real self) on the dual sides of which are angels, demons and all those other beings and forms that have been in existence since the dawn of creation.
Images, let us not forget, are not passed down to us only from the third and fourth generations but from the four hundredth and four millionth and from that time too before there were human beings or other life on earth. Each evolutionary stage contains the images of all that had been before, just as we see the baby in the womb recapitulating the evolution of creatures on earth. We can appreciate, and perhaps experience, that, deep within us, we are birds, reptiles, fish, prehistoric animals, rocks, flowers and that original one-celled amoeba whose appearance is such a mystery. So much has been experienced by some. And if this is so, is it beyond credence that before the amoeba, when the earth and other bodies were very old, there were angels and other beings whose consciousness helped in the creation of the amoeba and which is, therefore, part of us today?
When I see a pencil drawing of leaves in which there are tiny human heads ('the leaves were full of children'), when I fancy that I discern in a trunk and branches of a tree the figure of a man, or when, meditating on a tree's foliage I see the image of a head and angel's wings emerge, I am deeply moved. On one occasion I was actually brought to tears. In one of his finest lithographs the human (or angelic) image is clear, that of an age-old young woman before whose face leaves can be taken to be drifting or to be embedded in the face; in this, as in all his pictures, we see that we are more, infinitely more, than flesh and blood and conditioned responses.
All is one, the mystics say and in each one of us is all. The contemplation of Collins' images is like a reunion with a loved one who has gone away and become lost to us, but who, unexpectably, knocks at our door and embraces us with all the fervour of the father rushing to embrace his Prodigal Son.
The essential quality of this loved one is the way in which it directs its attention. There is, in many of Collins' paintings, someone looking out at us or at something in the picture, like the young male being who lies, leaning on his right elbow, as he gazes accross a bare plain to the sun rising behind a hill. With complete non-attachment he watches, a child who in a careless moment has created what he sees about him and who is wondering now what it is. It is the attitude of pure experience, of meeting the world without any guile or preconception whatsoever; of the original principle of consciousness we see embodied in the Fool.
With eyes at once expressionless yet with the sum of all possible expressions, the watching being is at the same time empty and full of knowledge. What the knowledge is of I do not know. It is something I knew once but have forgotten. We all knew it once and Collins' pictures create in us a longing for and a dim recognition of something we cannot fix, something very close to us. In this nostalgia for eternity and ourselves, it is not surprising that tears may come.
Before the angels and all else there was God, in whose service the foolish shall be made wise. Though it has been said that meditation and contemplation are essential for appreciating his paintings, one senses that it is not the practice and technique of meditation but prayer that lies at the heart of Collins and his work. Below all one's groping and fumbling towards meaning and explanation, one is simply more convinced because of Collins' paintings that there is a God and that He is a God of mercy and love. If such a God did not exist, it is impossible to believe that these pictures could have come into being.
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At The Heart of the 'Souls': The Drawings of Violet Manners, Duchess of Rutland
Until 24th April 2017. At The Russell-Cotes Museum and Gallery, Bournemouth.
Curated by Kirsty Stonell Walker.
Exhibition reviewed by William Rose
Self portrait. 1891
This is an intimate group of portraits by an accomplished artist and a celebrated personality of the late Victorian 'aesthetic' period. They are sensitive pencil renditions of the glamorous and often aristocratic group in which Lady Violet Manners (1856-1937) was a substantial member. As a child she might have been tutored by Burne-Jones himself, but he confined his assistance to just telling her father to insure that she did some self-portraiture in front of a mirror. Clearly, it worked, and at the same time the influence of Burne-Jones and the aesthetes is very evident.
Violet was a beauty herself and her circle included other beauties, as well as refined and artistic intellects, some of them quite partial to surreptitious encounters in the bedroom. There is no harm in an exhibition of fine art being enhanced by written details in the catalogue and we benefit here from the curator's interesting researches and her anecdotes about some of these characters. They were, in fact, the precursors of the Bloomsbury group, and were popularly known as 'The Souls' with Violet herself considered to be their 'Queen'. Queen of the Souls, quite a title.
As we admire the portraiture and wonder about these characters, a glance at the catalogue adds extra detail. Lady Ulrica Duncombe, 'Mouche' (drawn in 1896) had worn guaze veils to avoid freckles and when growing up had washed her face every morning in 'freshly gathered dew'. Did it come in a bottle I wonder? I expect that the servants gathered it from the stately lawns. One of the most attractive of the portraits (1899) is that of Mrs Beerbohm Tree (formerly Helen Maud Holt). She was surely a remarkable Victorian pioneer: A classics scholar of Queens College London and at twenty a professional actress who married the serially unfaithful actor, Herbert Beerbom Tree. It is an excellent drawing, the subject wearing a stylish hat above her lovely face upon which is a somewhat wistful sideways look. Perhaps beguiling too, though we are told that it was the husband who had the affairs.
Mr Henry 'Harry' Cust (drawn in 1892) was 'Famous for his love life rather than his professional life' and '...romantically attached to a vast swathe of late Victorian high society' - and this included the artist herself. It would seem that he had not fallen too much from her affection at the time of the portrait as he looks splendid, but yes, maybe, someone not to completely trust.
Harry Cust by Violet Manners. 1892. Russell-Cotes Museum and Gallery, Bounemouth.
The exhibition contains nine drawings of a similar size and technique. Despite the delicacy of execution there is a strength to the work which is particularly noticeable in the expressive rendition of the eyes. The portrait of Mrs E. Tennant (Lady Glenconner) is a notable example.
Amongst the celebrity and glamour there is also poignancy; some of the sitters were to lose loved ones in the Great War, Rudyard Kipling being a sad and well known example. This exhibition at the beautiful Russell-Cotes Gallery has been researched and curated by Kirsty Stonell Walker. It is held in the Morning Room of the Museum, with its Anna Zinkheisen painted ceiling, and it was a pleasure to see two young school children (boys) making the most of the paper and pencils on offer there to have a go themselves, and to leave behind their own works for posterity.
Recommended and continuing until April 24th.
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'A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL' a novel by KIRSTY STONELL WALKER
Reviewed by Lindsay Wells
If you want those Pre-Raphaelite characters to be brought alive in a whole new way, this is the book to read. George Boyce plays an important part, but the one who increasingly dominates, as no doubt he did at the time, is Dante Gabriel Rossetti - the charismatic one, and the romantic, poetic, aesthete par excellence. He was also the devoted, sometimes helpless, follower of the muse and here in Kirsty Stonell Walker's novel there are three of those. The three main ones in fact: Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, and at the centre of this tale and indeed told by her, Alice (Alexa) Wilding. These historical figures are woven into the narrative in such a way that their existence and their personalities feel as real as if we were observing them in the present. The secret must surely be that the writer is able to combine her narrative skills and imaginative flair with a consummate knowledge of Pre-Raphaelite art and its society. She has in fact already written the only biography that exists of Fanny Cornforth. I found this a superb read and felt that I was being given a unique chance to travel a while through the 1860s and in the company of those whom I could now experience in a fascinating new way.
A direct link to purchase this book:
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'VINCENT VAN GOGH: A SYMBOLIST LIFE'
(In this extract Alan Taylor first quotes Albert Aurier, from an article in which Aurier
described the Symbolist characteristics of Vincent's work. Taylor then goes on to give his own interesting and concise thoughts on the meaning of the word - "Symbol".
Alan Taylor is a lecturer on fine art, an artist, and a psychotherapist, living and working in North London).
'Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)' 1888 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg).
The qualities which Van Gogh brought to his painting were analysed perceptively by the
French art critic, Albert Aurier (1865 - 1892). Aurier was also a poet and member of the
Symbolists group. In the first article ever written on Vincent van Gogh, which appeared
in the inaugural issue of 'Mercure de France' in January 1890, he wrote,
"In the case of Vincent van Gogh - his choice of subjects, the constant harmony of the
most excessive colours, the honesty in the study of his characters, the continuous
search for the essential meaning of each object, a thousand significant details
unquestionably proclaim his profound and almost childlike sincerity, his great love of
nature and of truth - of his own truth. - This can be seen in the almost orgiastic excesses
of everything that he painted; he is a fanatic, an enemy of bourgeois sobriety, and of
trifling details. - He is no doubt very conscious of pigment, of its importance and beauty,
but also, and most frequently, he considers this enchanting pigment only as a marvellous
language destined to express an idea. Almost always he is a symbolist - feeling the
constant urge to clothe his ideas in precise, ponderable, tangible forms, in corporeal and
material envelopes. There lies in practically all his canvases, for those who know how to
find it, a thought, an idea. And this idea, the essential synthesis of his work, is also at
the same time its efficient and final cause. He had for a long time cherished the idea of
inventing an art of painting that was very simple and popular, almost childlike, capable of
touching humble people who do not care for subtlety." (End of quote).
Aurier concluded that great works of art should simultaneously be:
1. ideist, that is have an idea.
3. synthetist, that is have congruent forms.
5. superbly decorative.
What do I mean by the word/term, symbol?
Philosophers, of course, have also envisioned nature as a reconciliation of the harmony
of opposites, and conceived of art as a demonstration of these ideas. The aesthetic
theories with which the symbolists became familiar are ancient Greek ideas about the
effect on the psyche of forms and colours. The correspondences that bind the universe
together make symbolism possible. The word symbol derives from the Greek roots esyni,
meaning together, and eballieni, to throw. eSymboloni was the name given to a bone
broken by friends into two parts that were kept as tokens of their emotional union, and
esymboli has therefore always signified both the physical and spiritual aspects in joining
together separate parts to a unified whole. The symbol restores something incomplete to
its original state of integration by reconnecting the individual to the world by
synthesising matter and spirit, form and idea. Most cultures have perceived symbols as
having religious implications. A symbol conceals something yet is a revelation. A symbol is
an unconscious invention in answer to a conscious problem, and a very powerful
communication, such as for example, the Christian sacrament.
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Those who write about the wide ranging and international array of artists whom are collectively known as The Symbolists, tend to place them into different groupings to try to give structure and to help definition.
This is sometimes done by making international headings, or as in Henri Dorra's Symbolist Art Theories by differentiating sub-groups under Romantic, Post-Impressionists, and Artists of the Soul. Philipe Julian in his 1969 publication Dreamers of Decadence, a book on the Symbolist artists of the 1890s, intriguingly evokes different types of chimera with which to associate particular artists. One factor that links all the Symbolists is their freely given allegiance to the processes of the imagination. Indeed they are, if considered as a movement in art, the first to allow the imagination to become their natural environment and principal source of sustenance. So, as another means of making comparison and structure and thus facilitating understanding and gaining further pleasure from the work of these artists, it should be possible to think in terms of this very dimension of the mind that so inspired them, the imagination, and seek to observe and to differentiate between the various kinds of imagining.
The Symbolists are a notably mixed bag of artists, but it may nevertheless be found that there is an essence amongst them that evolved, an accretion that formed into a central core in the midst of this diversity. I believe that this exists in the last of the groups of 'imaginings' that I am about to describe.
I have concentrated on four types of imagination and will delineate their own particular characteristics, though of course there is overlap. They are:
The Dramatic Imagination.
The Symbiotic Imagination.
The Mystical Imagination.
The Existential Imagination.
These 'imaginations' do fall into something of a temporal sequence as each reaches its prominence during the Symbolist period. Time is relevant in a way that is more profound than this though, for the Symbolists were very much the repondents to the culture-shaking collision of the new and the old of the 19th century fin de siècle. The paradox of the Symbolists, and it is more a paradox than a contradiction, is that in their often troubled, reactionary and even neurotic responses to the onrushing modern world, they were nevertheless in another sense completely of their own time. For it was to them to express the anxieties and conflicts generated by a new cultural, industrial and psychological era and simultaneously to do this with a new freedom of expression and a new experience of subjectivity that this same advent of modern times made possible. Such new and raw states of being must often stir up that affect which can be such a marker of Symbolist art, anxiety.
The precursors to the Symbolists, and some of those who were notable figures in the early years of the movement, were expressing a new, more pronounced subjectivity through the very fact that they were giving such vent to the forces of their imaginations. This was imagination for imagination's sake. Their subject matter was frequently drawn from stirring, troubling, emotionally moving and exotic narratives and their's was the DRAMATIC IMAGINATION. Yet despite their spirit of adventure they still tended to look backwards to find the overall narrative structures into which they could place their own distinct imagery.
Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) could completely turn himself over to the compulsive elements in his inner world, yet reached to the familiar tales of antiquity for his pictorial settings, a notable example being his repeated renderings of the triumph of Salome in which he clearly shows that though the biblical story is there to be utilised, he has little involvement with the moral or spiritual significance of John the Baptist's death and a much greater interest in the castratingly seductive power of the young dancer Salome, dressed in little more than her jewels. .Gustave Moreau - 'Salome Dancing Before Herod' 1871 (Musée Gustave Moreau). Eroticism in painting was manifesting with a new, much sharper and ambivalent edge, more as it really is in fact.
The Swiss Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) also drew heavily from antiquity for his dramas and in a style that was influenced by his years amongst the classical and renaissance treasures of Italy. He often painted from classical mythology, but there could be a Wagnerian mood to his vision influenced by gods that were still well incumbent in Valhalla; there is a primitive Germanic grandeur that was to retrospectively bring him into disrepute. (eg. Arnold Böcklin 'In the Play of the Waves' 1883, and 'The Isle of the Dead' 1880).
Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) was a German who also reached back to pagan culture for the imagery with which to dramatise his personal pre-occupations. When he additionally deals with biblical narrative his inspiration, as so often with the Symbolists, is only from the creatures of sin. His 1890 painting of the alone and darkly brooding Lucifer must be one of the most remarkable visions in Symbolist art. (eg. Franz von Stuck 'Lucifer', 1890). The ultimate femme fatale as seen in Die Sinnlichkeit - Sensuality (an etching which you can view here linked to our own stock, click: Die Sinnlichkeit), could easily be thought of as one of Lucifer's own creatures.
Sometimes overlapping with these artists of the Dramatic Imagination and similarly tending to be found in the earlier stages of the period, are the artists of the SYMBIOTIC IMAGINATION.
Again we are given some truly idiosyncratic visions, so that the artists are recognisable, not only from style but also from their imaginative content and contexts. 'One face looks out from all his canvases...' wrote the poet Christina Rossetti about her brother Dante Gabriel's obsession with Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862), his love, model, muse and, briefly until her early death, wife: '...he feeds upon her face by day and night.'
Such obsessiveness must be motivated and kept energised by a prolonged and powerful force. As described above, for the artists of the Dramatic Imagination there was often a sexual pre-occupation, but with the Symbiotic Imagination there shows a more primitive manifestation of the libido, the wish to re-unite in blissful merger with the maternal and with such that is symbolic of 'her', the beginning of the world, nature, a golden age and even sometimes to return to the merger through death itself. Here there is a longing for womb-like undifferentiation, for innocence, before jealousy, before sin, before aloneness. (eg. Puvis de Chavannes: 'The River' c.1864)
And again, as with the Dramatic Imagination, these artists of the Symbiotic Imagination look to the past, in this case to the classical or to an idealised mediaeval grace. Here for instance there is Rossetti, Burne Jones, sometimes Puvis de Chavannes and German Symbolists such as Ludwig von Hoffman (1861-1945) with his Arcadian visions of young and beautiful creatures, unquestioning and usually unclothed, and undifferentiated from the natural beauty of the landscapes that so harmoniously contain them, (eg. Ludwig von Hoffman 'Idyll' 1896). It is an idealistic repudiation of the repetitiveness, stress and pollution of a new mechanised age and the perceived loss of values therein, but in its nostalgia there is a longing for merger which will reduce the burdens of difference. The dream of the chivalric middle ages could move Burne-Jones to ecstasy. Here he saw grace and perfection and in his art he populated it with androgynous knights and palid maidens, their sexuality aesthetically tamed, (eg. 'King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid' 1892, a photogravure of which can be seen here as a link to our own stock - click: King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid) Sometimes these artists are called Artists of the Soul, but is this really about the soul or rather the artist's need to find and unite with the feminine element buried deep inside? Is that in fact the true quest? In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel 1875-9 (Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University) ,
based upon his earlier poem first published in 1850, the maiden looks out and down to earth from "the bar of heaven". She has died and risen to heaven and below, her mortal lover lies beneath a tree looking upwards. They both long for their re-unification, which can only be their merger in death -
"We two will lie i' the shadow of
That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
Is sometimes felt to be..."
Artists of the Soul suggests spirituality, but there was another group of Symbolists who could lay claim more directly and sometimes more profoundly to that area. They were of the MYSTICAL IMAGINATION. Their difference was that their spirituality, whether Christian or of the occult, was not driven by an unconscious symbiotic longing to re-join a wondrous maternal presence, once known, now imagined, though perhaps always just imagined. Instead they sought an experience of mysticism, which though it too involved an alteration to the sense of personal boundaries, was one wherein the individual was placed within a numinosity of spiritual truth.
The great English visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) had a unique access to the spirtual experience and a supreme ability to express it in word and images. The work is profoundly symbolic and would be influential to Symbolists though it was prior to Symbolism as a movement. His rough little woodcuts commissioned by the publisher Robert John Thornhill to illustrate the pastoral poems of Virgil (1821), inspired a group of young artists, notably Samuel Palmer (1805-81), Edward Calvert (1799-1883), and George Richmond (1809-96), to follow a vision that was derived from a mystical connection to the English countryside. Based in Shoreham in Kent they called themselves 'The Ancients'. Their pantheistic landscapes are a vital part of the pastoral and ruralist English tradition and move the mystical element into a gentle and poetic imagery. (eg. Samuel Palmer: 'Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star' c1830). They were not to become Symbolists though and to find mystical artists who were participating in the Symbolist movement the attention needs to be focussed opon the continent of Europe.
There were here artists such as Jean Delville and those who gathered around the charisma of Joséphin Péladan (1859-1918), who aimed at a more particular outcome. Péladan went so far as to resurrect the German mediaeval society of the Rosicrucians for his purposes and re-named himself, as its leader the Sâr Péladan. He was driven by a hatred of materialism. Aestheticism and the occult thus became a prescribed salvation for his followers. Unfortunately his personage in this respect, clothed in the robes of the magus and with other dramatic elaborations to his life style, is undermined for some by its theatricality, though for others he remains a figure of importance who unjustly has been largely forgotten.
There were elements of serious mystical intent within this group, and it is of note that after all the Rosicrucian headiness there were still those such as Delville who continued along a spiritual path, and interesting that some moved towards Eastern mystical doctrines and practice. It does seem that, in viewing the 'mystical' in art, a distinction needs to be made in terms of the profundity or relative superficiality of the particular vision. It is not a title that can be too easily assumed.
Many influences and imaginative strands gathered and circled around within the container of 'Symbolism' and gravitational cores evolved. These artists of the Mystical Imagination comprised one such core in that they were expressing their responses to the existential and spiritual dilemmas of their day. They searched for meaning beyond the manifest and the materialistic, and challenged the religious inertia that had provided a a security for previous generations.
But there was another nucleus that eventually formed and this one can perhaps claim a special centrality and source of definition. There are a number of artists who tend to be found in the latter stage of the Symbolist era who can be called artists of THE EXISTENTIAL IMAGINATION. The convenience and reassurance found in the familiar subject matters and imaginative constructions of previous generations are stripped away. Here are imaginings that make reference only to the here and now pre-occupations, often extremely anxious ones, of being in a world as it tips from one century into the next. A world in which there is much upheaval but also new personal freedom, and in which individual responsibilty has to be taken for that which is felt, thought and indeed, imagined. Here can be found the isolated female figures of the Belgian Leon Spilliaert, silhouetted upon a strip of shoreline or quayside, the symbolic meeting place with the unconscious. There are the the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler's strangely delineated figures, gesturing and positioned in ways that make reference to the metaphysical, but also to the strangeness of being 'Der Tag' 1900 (Kunstmuseum, Bern),
and perhaps above all, the moody and melancholic subjectivity of Edvard Munch. Munch is frequently beset by that most troubled of Symbolist pre-occupations, the man who is emotionally and sexually in thrall to the desired, but over-powering woman. In this he often produced familiar symbolist iconography. However, as pointed out by Luigi Bernardi in his article that accompanied the exhibition of works by Munch and Félicien Rops, 'Man Woman', Munch (unlike Rops), ventured into new territory to express the insecurity and uncertainty besetting the sexual and gender relations of the time as they impacted on both men and women. Bernardi writes: "...embraces like the one in the painting of 1897 (by Munch), The Kiss, are often embraces in the dark, full of fear rather than sensuality, a clinging onto each other rather than an amorous embrace".
There is no reference to extraneous sources in these pictures; no borrowing from previous epochs, no looking to familiar narratives within which to imagine.
This art is anxiously, courageously of the moment; of the existence of the self, precarious as this may be, and its way of letting itself be known, through the imagination.
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'THE SYMBOLIST LANDSCAPE - SOME REFLECTIONS'
Landscape is, in general, probably the most readily accepted imagery in fine art, particularly for those who do not seek art out, but can enjoy a picture when they come upon it.
The scenes can make little demand upon the viewer and can soothe and satisfy through the aesthetic qualities and the pleasant associations conjured up by the image. The ease with which a beautiful landscape picture can be enjoyed, can bely the excellence and depth of skill involved in its production.
Symbolist landscapes are in the main no different from the mainstream in their pleasing representations of the beauty of nature. However we should also expect an edge, more dusks and stormy skies for instance, those elements in nature that can outwardly express the emotional inner landscapes of mankind. Historically the precursor to the Symbolist landscape was the Romantic landscape, which as part of the wider artistic movement of Romanticism, can be mainly located in the latter part of the eighteenth and earlier stages of the nineteenth centuries. In the Romantic landscape there is the natural beauty of nature, which is now overdetermined by the emotion of the artist, in turn, provoking the emotions of the viewer.
In this is the difference between, for instance, a seventeenth century landscape by the French painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682),which is likely to be a painting of perfection, an ideal that has been beautifully composed, and the freely expressed and highly emotional sea storms and sunsets of the English Romantic J.M.W.Turner .
The Romantic landscape incorporated the emotion and took it as the dynamic force to push landscape art into new and more exciting areas.
The Symbolists, following on from the Romantics historically and reaching their most concentrated period at the end of the nineteenth century, were truly in the tradition of the Romantics. They added in their art though, that indespensible Symbolist ingredient - the idea.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) 'Lake Keitele' 1905. National Gallery, London.
It is not possible to always be specific about this idea or to specifically always locate it in the Symbolist oeuvre. Artists have always had ideas, and the landscape artists of Romanticism could themselves certainly convey an idea as well as an emotion. However it is with the Symbolist landscape that there is the provocation of the questioning thought - 'What does this mean?', thus - 'What is the underlying idea of the artist?' It is also in the nature of the visual arts and the literature of the Symbolist movement to pose the question and to evoke a response, without providing the means of a clear and comfortable answer. So the viewer can be left touched by the subjectivity, the inner world of the artist, and intrigued by the subjectivity of their own response.
Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) 'The Isle of the Dead' 1886. Museum der bildenden Kunste. Source, The Yorck Project.
The German speaking nations had a particularly rich tradition of Romantic landscape art in which Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840), also surely a proto-symbolist, has the greatest significance and influence. The most significant name in Symbolist landscape, the Swiss Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), showed powerfully the influence of Romanticism and added to it that extra layer to a given scene that is provided by the Symbolists' beloved imaginative idea. Paintings by Bocklin such as 'The Isle of the Dead' have iconic positions in the history of Symbolist art. Such work was shown to great effect in the magnificent 2000 exhibition held at Birmingham City Art Gallery, 'Kingdom of the Soul - German Symbolist Art (1870-1920) '. (Get the catalogue if you can).
On this website can be found some original prints by Germanic artists that are influenced by the Symbolist way. Reverie in a Landscape, an aquatint by Cacilie Graf-Pfaff (active early 1900s) is a magnificent example of the melancholic, contemplative dreamlike nature to be found in the more romantic kind of Symbolism, whilst Hans am Ende (1864-1918) in his etching Das Grab des Hannibal (Hannibal's Grave), evokes a more sombre melancholy. Forest Scene, a lithograph by Georg Broel (1884-1940), expresses the mystery and allure, but also the uncertainty that is generated by the opening to the forest, (the unconscious); and the etching of the Windy Landscape by Fritz Voellmy (1863-1939) contains that object, the tall slim tree, its tip curved and swaying in the wind, that has been used so well by Symbolists to convey the metaphysical element in nature.
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'THE STRANGE CASE OF MADELEINE SEGUIN'
The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin by Wlliam Rose is a work of fiction; a novel that contains themes of art, psychology, history and the occult. Symbolist Art and artists are strongly featured. It is published by Karnac Books and is available on Amazon and through other outlets.
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A review is below and more reviews can be seen on the amazon.co.uk website.
"By documenting the case of the young, charismatic Madeleine Seguin, patient at the Saltpêtrière mental asylum, Rose brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. This was a period when new scientific ideas competed and mingled with religious and primitive, dangerous superstition. Rose cleverly develops characters who are steeped variously in Roman Catholicism, Symbolist aesthetics, early scientific psychiatry and Satanic cultism. Seminal characters of the time are also convincingly brought to life including Charcot, Mallarmé, and the sinister artist Félicien Rops.
This novel is a great read for anyone interested in the roots of Symbolism, capturing not only the society from which it grew but also being a work of Symbolist art in its own right."
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'THE RAISING OF SEX - AN INTRODUCTION TO THE KAIROS TAROT'
LYNN PAULA RUSSELL
It is now time to grant the seeker of the Truth some rejuvenation on the long and arduous journey towards the font of all true wisdom. For wisdom dictates that, should we be true and earnest in our endeavours, we must cast aside all false modesty and prudery that seeks to limit our understanding ofour true Self. Sexuality is but another face of our true Self.
Kairos (The Kairos Tarot)
(Image Copyright Lynn Paula Russell)
What subject has been the most problematic and obstructive to spiritual understanding for the past two thousand years? What is it that seems to present us with the greatest dilemmas whenever we seek to raise our level of consciousness? Yes, of course, it has always been sex! One might even think that sexuality had been deliberately woven into the human make-up for the express purpose of veiling the truth and barring us from enlightenment. Furthermore, since the matter could never be discussed openly in relation to spirituality, there has never been an opportunity to clear up the confusion. Teachers of esoteric wisdom, who did know better, have always been secretive in the past, for obvious reasons, but now the general feeling is that it is time to speak more openly. For this purpose the Kairos Tarot has arrived.
When Freud discovered how much damage is done to the individual when the sex-drive is suppressed, he stumbled on a great truth. This led us to the assumption that complete freedom from inhibition was the answer to almost every psychological problem, which is clearly not the case. Unbridled sexual freedom, with no restraints, may lead to a surge of wonderful joy at the outset, and a releasing of tension, but we soon wander off course if we allow ourselves to be guided purely by physical desires. Unfocussed promiscuity simply diminishes the potency of the force and we find ourselves vainly searching for fulfilment where it cannot be found.
(Image Copyright Lynn Paula Russell)
I think most of us know now that sexuality need not be cut off in order for us to grow spiritually; in fact, to do so is to destroy the very power that could take us to the heights of illumination. For the power that fires the sex drive is the Serpent or Kundalini energy we hear so much about in esoteric writing – the force that must be raised up and transmuted; it is the ‘Secret Fire’ of the alchemists; it is the very power that builds the universe. In fact, acknowledging and understanding this force is the beginning of our spiritual journey. Purifying ones attitude towards the sex drive is the doorway that leads to transformation and it is a doorway that must be gone through. It cannot be side stepped.
Allow me to introduce myself. I am an artist and for the last thirty years or so have been exploring in my artwork and in my life, the many faceted nature of sexual expression and what lies behind it. This was my chosen way of getting in touch with myself, and it forced me to be rigorously honest. Now I can see that all those earlier experiences provided a good grounding for what later unfolded in my spiritual work. Eight years ago I was invited to collaborate in a most fascinating and unusual project – to create an entirely new tarot deck that would symbolise the fundamental cosmic forces in explicit detail as they are manifested in our own sexual functions.
Man is made in the likeness of God, we are told, and the Hermetic philosophy clearly states, ‘'That which is above is as that which is below and that which is below is as that which is above…’ therefore it follows that we are embodiments of all the Divine attributes, albeit in a different form. We see in our own mysterious ability to procreate, the precise means by which God creates life. We see in a woman’s gender the embodiment and expression of the womb and the yoni of the Divine Mother. When we can associate these parts of a female body with what they truly represent, and rid them of all taint, we will at last see them as they really are. Equally, in the aroused phallus, we see a reflection of the Divine function that generates new life, all brought about by the magnetic attraction of the polarities of gender. If we think of the sexual act of erection-penetration-ejaculation we can see it as the creative Life Force joining with Itself in the darkness of Chaos (vagina/womb) in order to create Itself once more.
(Image Copyright Lynn Paula Russell)
The Kairos Tarot states that, ‘there are many levels of manifestation before the gross outer level becomes apparent to the material world. For all incarnation mitigates to the purpose of the realisation of God consciousness. Matter is but an auxiliary of Spirit to the adept... All is essentially thought – regardless of whether it has physical form or not.’
Years of conditioning have ground into us that the material world is all there is, and for many people it is very hard to reverse this concept. Realising that ‘All is essentially thought’ we are able to grasp that the material world is only ‘gross’ in so far as its vibrations are slower, more congealed, in comparison with the higher vibrations of finer levels. However, this level must not be denigrated for that reason. Physical manifestation has a very definite and important purpose. We are placed here to enter into the mainstream of experience and submit ourselves to the full gamut of life in order to maximise the experience of sensation and gain insight from it.
The fuel of sexual attraction is love and the desire for union – and yet, while we remain rooted within our own singularity, we seek union but cannot reunite. In this we see the mystery of sex explained in a nutshell. The lower, sense obsessed, nature is forever seeking a greater ‘high’: a more intense orgasmic release. Bounded by the physical vehicle, dictated to by ego, this is impossibility. Animal passion is therefore simply a vehicle for a higher understanding, once we see its limitations as a hint to evolve a still greater intensity of feeling.
Human sexuality, like all creation, must be under the conscious control of the individual – control but not suppression. It can be used to either evolve or devolve, depending on its intent. Responsibility and karma travel hand in hand.
(Image Copyright Lynn Paula Russell)
With these thoughts, the Tarot aspirant sets out on a fascinating journey towards self-realisation. In order to understand how to use this wonderful power of creation, in ways that go beyond the basic act of human sexual intercourse, he must first travel through all the Tarot trumps. By so doing he/she will learn to subjugate ego-self by realising that all sensory data is transient and therefore merely a reflection of his own level of consciousness.
To help open up a greater breadth of vision, Kairos provides us with some unique and precise creative visualisation exercises and through these the traveller will be gradually purged of any residual shame he may still be harbouring. If properly understood, the visualisations will raise the aspirant to new vistas of consciousness in which he/she will see, at last, the real significance of orgasm.
‘Therein will be the Bliss and wondrous majesty referred to by the Ancients as “The Peregrine’s Return.” For the wanderings of the body throughout the life were but preparation for the return of the Self to that place from whence it had embarked.’
This is a very brief outline only. The full text requires careful study. Working with Kairos to create the images for this unique tarot deck was an astonishing experience. Although separated by several thousand miles, we were able to achieve a close creative partnership. There were times when I felt I could not accomplish what was required – the images seemed too strange, the colours of my palette insufficiently vibrant for the effect I wished to convey. There were other times when the images wouldn’t come because I had an inner resistance to them, all of which revealed hidden layers of my own fears and blocks. But at last it is finished and we hope that it will reach those who will benefit from its message. At first it will seem unfamiliar because the traditional names of the Trumps have been changed, but this does not make the Keys impenetrable and perseverance will bring rich rewards. I will leave you with this thought:
‘The physicality of sex must by necessity be of a powerful magnitude to ignite the even greater power of its spiritual core. It remains a truism to say that one enters a hot bath in stages and so it is here. Even the most recalcitrant of souls will, within the parameters of eternity, come to the realization that the wherewithal of sex is spiritual. One can consume the banana skin for just so long before accepting that the fruit is much more palatable and nutritious.’ (The Kairos Tarot)
(Image Copyright Lynn Paula Russell)
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